“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Well, that’s overstating it a bit, though Dickens’ following words very accurately encapsulate Thursday evening’s City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra concert: “it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness.” Though taking place in a city centre in the heart of winter, the music immediately transported us to mountain heights in more clement climes.

© Hannah Fathers

Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major, a work that charts a trajectory from nature’s awakening to a blazing near-miss of the inferno before almost accidentally discovering transcendence, came off awkwardly. It was immediately apparent that Gergely Madaras had a clear path mapped out. The first movement created a lovely sense of bleary-eyed awakening, even allowing an element of looseness in the connectivity of its ideas, which only gradually cohered into full colour and fast momentum. Yet from the outset the performance was marred by poor intonation and articulation, the worst offenders being the brass. What appeared to be early exuberance over time was revealed to be simply sloppiness.

That being said, Mahler’s music won through, and Madaras’ vision of a pitched battle between the symphony’s contrasting light and dark proved compelling despite the shortcomings. Whenever lyricism came to the fore, Madaras lingered over it with great tenderness (even, in the finale, unashamedly milking it), which only made its subsequent retreats away sound more ominous and grotesque. The triumphant conclusion was genuinely thrilling, but it was disappointing to witness an interesting interpretation of the work being let down by such surprisingly inadequate execution. 

Not so in Thomas Larcher’s Symphony no. 3, receiving its pandemic-delayed UK premiere. Inspired by the exploits and tragic death of climber Tom Ballard – from whom the work derives its subtitle, “A Line above the Sky”, referencing one of Ballard’s climbing routes – the work is cast in two connected movements, charting a clear progression from awe and wonder to something altogether more emotionally-wrought. Vigorous, quickly establishing a sense of broad, rather dizzying scope through use of wide registers and stratified materials, Larcher’s music was at first exuberant and beautiful, conveying a fitting breathlessness. A minor key brass chorale struck an early note of solemnity, as did a subsequent anguished minor ninth chord (echoes of the finale in the Mahler). Yet throughout this opening sequence the music’s volatility suggested excitement and elation, Larcher using rising and falling motifs to reinforce the notion of vertical scale.

Pinpointing exactly where events took a turn was difficult, but certain passages – swells tipping over into a wall of noise; an accelerating series of rhythmic string clusters like a laborious heartbeat – seemed to indicate we were moving away from the symphony’s opening carefree attitude. The music became dramatically more clamorous, and precarious, Larcher polarising the orchestra to registral extremes, as if all that existed were the sky and the ground. Though the falling motif briefly hinted at the nocturnal gentleness in another mountainous work, Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, this proved to be either an illusion or a red herring. Raw, fraught energy repeatedly brushed aside any and all hints of stability or certainty, unexpectedly arriving on a kind of dazed plateau, vague and stupefied. Bells rang out, the cluster heartbeat chugged forward a little further, before everything fizzled through radiant strings into a closing unstable stability, dronal but full of twitching tension.

The way the CBSO made Larcher’s complex textures so vividly clear was remarkable. As with so many great symphonies, the work left one feeling rather shattered in the wake of its subtle but vivid evocation of triumph of tragedy.